Essays Two collects Davis's writings and talks on her second profession: the art of translation. The award-winning translator from the French reflects on her experience translating Proust, Madame Bovary, and Michel Leiris. She also makes an extended visit to the French city of Arles, and writes about the varied adventures of learning Norwegian, Dutch, and Spanish through reading and translation.
... whatever the topic, Davis is always superb company: erudite, adventurous, surprising ... Trying to learn a language from scratch by reading a book is like trying to write a complicated cake recipe by sitting and staring at the finished cake for several hundred hours. Is it the most efficient form of pedagogy? No, but Davis extracts endless thrills from the painstaking process. Her essays do a beautiful job of transmitting that satisfaction to the reader, although I was occasionally tempted to exercise my skimming muscles in places where she dove deep into the weeds. Skimming, however, would be the wrong move in a book that contains an incredible amount of life-enhancing morsels ... Davis’s essays are packed with these windows of opportunity to think more deeply — or at all — about many subjects ... I enjoyed the book’s plenitude so much that I wasn’t distracted by its squat physical shape, which is adorable to hold but designed in such a way that the book tries to flip itself shut as you read. No amount of violent spine-cracking would break the object’s resistance, and around Page 300 I turned a corner and became charmed by its antagonistic construction. I will read you and you will like it, I warned my copy of Essays Two. And lo, I liked it, too.
It’s a guide, however, to new dimensions of thought. Davis makes translation seem like a sublime exercise of mind and self ... Davis’s adventures in translation are full of such realizations, and the lessons they sustain are encouraging. Reading for fun, it turns out, can make things happen ... A hopeful mood prevails in this book ... She makes it seem so obvious that reading a foreign language for enjoyment leads to astonishing new vistas, because she reminds us that fun is naturally propulsive ... This gets to the wonderful paradox of Davis as a translator, who finds a comfortable mode for thrilling mystery, for language far from home.
Essays Two is a companion to Essays One, an earlier volume of critical pieces about reading, writing, and art. Like many of the narrators of her short stories, Davis is a taxonomist and enumerator ... As a translator, Davis is known for fidelity, clarity, and, in the case of Proust, decluttering ... Davis occasionally casts a cool eye on the kind of translator’s liberties and blunders she wants to avoid ... Her goal of staying as close as possible to the vocabulary of the original novels leads her far down the path of etymology, both in English and in French ... Davis doesn’t often release her reader into laughter ... Davis’s case is narrowly bounded, local, and specific: here is one bad new word that shouldn’t displace a good one ... She can only offer a suggestive example, hope to nudge the development of the language in directions that are useful rather than destructive, and be prepared to fail.